Nearly two million Africans were recruited as soldiers, porters, and scouts for the Allies during the war. When these soldiers returned home, they returned to colonial states that still considered them inferior. Many veterans had expected that their dedication to colonial governments would be recognized and they would be rewarded accordingly. This was not to be, and these soldiers returned home to conditions worsened by a weak global economy. Because they had fought to protect the interests of the colonial powers only to return to the exploitation and indignities of colonial rule, these men became bitter and discontented.
In 1945, the Pan-African Manchester Congress in England marked a turning point because it attempted to address the needs of all blacks. Pan-Africanism began to stress common experiences of blackness and sought the liberation of all black people around the world. African leaders became more influential in the movement as they used it to attack colonial rule, and the movement would become more African-based after 1945. Pan-Africanism proved very popular among nationalist African leaders because it offered a way for them to overcome both regionalism and ethnic divides by stressing commonalities and a common oppression. By the 1950s, Pan-Africanism had profoundly influenced almost every African nationalist leader: Kwame Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda (1964–1991; Zambia), Haile Selassie (1892–1975; Ethiopia), Albert Luthuli (c. 1898–1967; South Africa), and Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–1996; Nigeria), all were deeply affected by the movement.
Kwame Nkrumah is regarded as the father of "Africanized" Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah detested colonial rule. Schooled in the United States, he was deeply influenced by the African American civil rights struggle, and began to emphasize the similarities between those struggles and those of African peoples. He argued that African workers and peasants needed to reclaim their independence, and advocated the use of force if necessary. For this to happen, Africans had to shed their strong ethnic or religious identities and see themselves simply as black or African rather than Yoruba or Fante. Nkrumah's intense disdain for colonial rule, zealous enthusiasm for independence, and the ideal of a United States of Africa made him popular among Africans throughout the continent. Nkrumah argued that they could not look to any outside power for support, and believed that foreign economic and political forces eroded African values. He also disagreed with the idea of returning to "African tradition." Instead, he argued that a new African identity must be created out of Islam, Christian, and traditional cultures.
Nnamdi Azikiwe was a prominent Pan-Africanist and an important thinker. Unlike most Pan-Africanists, Azikiwe rejected various aspects of Africa's past such as chieftaincy and informal education. He also rejected Nkrumah's united Africa, and advocated the use of colonial boundaries to define nations. For him, a united Africa meant cooperation, but not an actual unification of the continent. As Nigeria achieved independence and rapidly moved toward regionalism, Azikiwe abandoned his Pan-Africanist ideals for regional politics. Pan-Africanism reinforced notions of black pride, and African history was used to foster a national identity. Many nationalist leaders stressed past empires (for example, the Mali and Asante), achievements (such as those of great Zimbabwe and ancient Egypt), and leaders (Shaka Zulu [c. 1787–1828] and Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia [1844–1913] among them) as a means to instill pride among African peoples. By stressing the continent's successes throughout its history, African leaders sought to convince their followers of their own worth and that Europeans were not superior to them. Again, the aim was to restore pride in Africa and create a sense of unity that nations could use to foster nationalism. African women were major contributors to resistance to colonial rule and the promotion of nationalism. Many argue that women fared the worst under colonial rule. Governments such as those in Rhodesia, Kenya, and South Africa sought to restrict women's movement and even banned them from urban areas. In rural areas, they were often expected to maintain food production and raise children while their husbands rotted in jails, migrated to other areas in search of wage labor, or fought in wars (both in World War II and various liberation struggles). These women did not idly sit back and allow colonial governments to impinge on their rights, and, in response to their harsh situation under colonial rule, they organized protests, boycotts, workers' strikes, and demonstrations. In Kenya, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and other areas that attempted armed struggle, women as well as men carried messages, spied, and prepared meals. Overall, their impact on the anticolonial and nationalist movements throughout Africa was profound. While Africans were widely successful in fostering nationalism in order to overthrow colonial oppressors, maintaining this unity after independence proved far more difficult. African nationalism was overtly anticolonial. For these nationalist movements, energy was concentrated on gaining freedom rather than planning how to run a country once freedom was achieved. Overthrowing colonial regimes was quite difficult, so these leaders could not afford to spend manpower, funds, and effort planning how to govern their new nations if they were successful.